change cycles

Cycles Are the Natural Order of Things

Nature often gives us cues that our modern life makes easy to miss. Taking a pause in the natural world for just a moment reveals that nearly everything follows a cycle. The earth rotates a revolution that repeats each day and follows a path that repeats every year. Weather follows seasons. Plants sprout, grow, die, and repeat. Heart muscles contract and release.

Yet, at work and in life, we often find ourselves in relentless pursuit.

Cycles Make Hard Things Possible

Ross Edgley holds several world records for ultra endurance feats that, before his efforts, most people considered to be impossible for humans to accomplish. In short: he doesn’t just do a lot of things; he does a lot of very hard things. In his book, Blueprint, he observes that the work required for him to circumnavigate Great Britain by swim in 157 days was as much about building the right cadence of strength and endurance as it was about engaging in effective recovery and reassessment of strategy. His approach to accomplishing great feats again and again follows five “Rs”: Recovery, Rebuilding, Recalibration, Returning, and Reassessing.

Of all of these stages, only one focuses on the doing. It suggests that while doing the same work over and over again may be sufficient in some cases, doing great work requires that 80% of the effort focus on preparation and reassessment rather than the work itself.

Importantly, Edgley isn’t just talking about getting things done; he’s talking about getting impossible things done. Organizations pursuing bold visions and big ideas for positive change too face upward hills that some would call impossible.

Integrating Cycles in Change Work

So what happens if we think of work as constant doing? We lose out on the most powerful parts of our cycle. Integrating regular moments to pause, learn, assess, and plan help us both make sure we remain focused on the most important things, and also recapture the energy required to accomplish great things.

Constantly trudging toward an invisible future is inevitably exhausting, possibly also demoralizing and demotivating, and an almost surefire recipe for emotional burnout. By contrast, regularly returning to the vision for your work (or your life) and evaluating how it has changed as a result of what you’ve learned, then reassessing the work you’re doing has the opposite effect. It can be engaging, reinvigorating, and even exhilarating (assuming you have done a good job as a learner along the way). This is most true when periods of work are interspersed with periods of dedicated recovery.

The challenge, of course, is that taking time for activities like recovering and reassessing can feel like a distraction from progress—especially when leaders at the top of organizations feel the pressure of margins, and when leaders at lower levels feel like their superiors expect constant action. The work is to find ways to build discipline around intentional moments of pause, reflection, and evaluation amidst doing to ensure that progress is indeed forward, and that the long path to your infinite vision is a sustainable one.

Beware the bad habits that masquerade as cycles: hiring someone else to create your strategy for you, and only updating it every five (or more!) years; having team meetings that are merely a hodgepodge of “report-outs” by participants; holding “retreats” that focus exclusively on getting something done rather than building relationships and capacity that help keep work going over the long haul; dedicating time to evaluating what got done rather than attending to whether it accomplished its intended outcome or what got in the way of its success. These things are habits of corporate practice that make people feel like they’re accomplishing something even when they frequently serve no value at all.

Consider opportunities to build intentional cycles into your work and life. First things first: what are you trying to accomplish, and does everyone who is needed to help you reach that vision see it as clearly as you do?